Turmoil prevails in Iraq

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Times Staff Writer

The U.S. military buildup that was supposed to calm Baghdad and other trouble spots has failed to usher in national reconciliation, as the capital’s neighborhoods rupture even further along sectarian lines, violence shifts elsewhere and Iraq’s government remains mired in political infighting.

In the coming days, U.S. military and government leaders will offer Congress their assessment of the 6-month-old plan’s results. But a review of statistics on death and displacement, political developments and the impressions of Iraqis who are living under the heightened military presence reaches a dispiriting conclusion.

Despite the plan, which has brought an additional 28,500 U.S. troops to Iraq since February, none of the major legislation that Washington had expected the Iraqi parliament to pass into law has been approved.


The number of Iraqis fleeing their homes has increased, not decreased, according to the United Nations’ International Organization for Migration and Iraq’s Ministry for Displacement and Migration.

Military officials say sectarian killings in Baghdad are down more than 51% and attacks on civilians and security forces across Iraq have decreased. But this has not translated into a substantial drop in civilian deaths as insurgents take their lethal trade to more remote regions. Last month, as many as 400 people were killed in a bombing in a village near the Syrian border, the worst bombing since the war began in March 2003. In July, 150 people were reported killed in a village about 100 miles north of Baghdad.

And in a sign that tamping down Sunni-Shiite violence is no guarantee of stability, a feud between rival Shiite Muslim militias has killed scores of Iraqis in recent months. Last week, at least 52 people died in militia clashes in the Shiite holy city of Karbala.

At best, analysts, military officers and ordinary Iraqis portray the country as in a holding pattern, dependent on U.S. troops to keep the lid on violence.

“The military offensive has temporarily suppressed, or in many cases dislocated, armed groups,” said Joost Hiltermann of the International Crisis Group. “Once the military surge peters out, which it will if there is no progress on the political front, these groups will pop right back up and start going at each other’s, and civilians’, throats again.”

Political stalemate

Iraq’s political stalemate and the continued violence have forced a major shift in the mind-set of U.S. officials, who had lofty visions of the plan creating conditions under which Prime Minister Nouri Maliki’s Shiite-led government would foster reconciliation among Shiites, Sunni Arabs and Kurds.


Like the Baghdad neighborhoods where Sunni and Shiite Muslims and Christians once lived side by side, the early troop-buildup “benchmarks” have been whittled down to remnants of their former selves.

Now, military and government officials highlight progress on the local, neighborhood and even street level. Much of it hinges on the future of deals struck with former insurgents who until recently were aiming their guns at U.S. forces.

“There are . . . if you will, mini-benchmarks where things are happening,” U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker said Aug. 21. Crocker cited Anbar province, west of Baghdad, where violence has dropped substantially since Sunni Arab leaders there began working with U.S. and Iraqi security forces.

“We’ve seen that phenomenon in different forms move through different parts of the country,” Crocker said. “It’s the steps these tribes, communities, individuals are taking. . . . You’ve got to keep an eye on that too.”

Anbar’s situation is far from solid, though. A bomber attacked a mosque in one of its main cities, Fallouja, on Aug. 27, killing at least 10 people, and scores of civilians and Iraqi security forces have died in bombings elsewhere in the province in recent months.

Anbar also represents just one particularly homogenous Sunni Arab slice. There is no indication that progress made there can be replicated on a grand enough scale to have a nationwide effect.


“It’s always easy to get the prospective loser in a civil war to agree to a cease-fire,” said Stephen Biddle, a counterinsurgency expert at the Council on Foreign Relations who has advised military commanders in Iraq. Sunnis are a minority and far more open to switching loyalties if it ensures them a future stake in governing Iraq, he said.

“It’s a lot tougher to get the prospective winner to agree to a cease-fire,” Biddle said, referring to the majority Shiites. “Getting them to sign on is going to be harder because they see themselves in ascendancy.”

Expressing optimism

Publicly, at least, U.S. military leaders express optimism.

“The effects of our surge and reconciliation efforts are beginning to pay off,” the day-to-day commander of U.S. ground troops, Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, told a Pentagon news briefing Aug. 17. “Total attacks are on a monthlong decline and are at their lowest levels since August of 2006. Attacks against civilians are at a six-month low.”

President Bush and Crocker also lauded an announcement by Maliki that Shiite, Kurdish and Sunni leaders had resolved differences over some of the legislation sought by Washington. But Sunni leaders say this is not enough to make them end their boycott of parliament, which reconvenes today after a summer break.

The lack of Sunni participation would undermine the credibility of any bill passed into law.

Privately, many troops say the military buildup should have been able to do far more by now than cut the number of attacks in some neighborhoods.


Pouring troops into the capital is no doubt going to make some areas safer, said one Marine officer, who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the upcoming assessment.

“I don’t know anyone who said, ‘Let’s have an argument on whether 20,000 troops can have an impact on some neighborhoods,’ ” the officer said. “I heard a debate about whether a 20,000-man surge would appreciably enhance the security of the Iraqi people and end the sectarian violence so political reconciliation could occur across the country, not just in Baghdad neighborhoods.

“This is not a military contest,” he said.

The shakiness of Iraq’s capacity for reconciliation under current conditions is especially evident in Baghdad, the focus of the buildup. The sprawling capital is a patchwork quilt of neighborhoods split along sectarian lines that appears to have become more balkanized, not less, in the last six months.

“The surge now is isolating areas from each other . . . and putting up permanent checkpoints. That is what I call a failure,” said Yousif Kinany, an engineer in Hurriya, a northwestern area that has become primarily Shiite.

Sectarian ‘cleansing’

People who describe their neighborhoods as calm often attribute this to the sectarian “cleansing” of Sunnis or Shiites. Many say that better security is attributable to a heavy U.S. presence in their neighborhoods and that whenever those troops scale down operations, trouble returns.

Hamid Abdul Kareem, a supermarket owner in the northeastern neighborhood of Shaab, said the area was relatively secure. He said that was because of an exodus of Sunni families from Shaab, where the Mahdi Army loyal to radical Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr has a strong presence.


“Sunnis still live in the region, but I think within the next year, the region will be totally Shiite,” Kareem said.

Hassan Shimari is one such Sunni. He lives in Shaab with his wife, a Shiite. He also wears a beard and is grateful for his dark complexion because it makes him look more Shiite than Sunni.

He said Shaab was quiet because Sunnis were lying low and because there was still enough of an American presence there to keep Shiite militias under control.

“If there is any weakening of the American forces here, it will be very, very bad,” said Shimari, a taxi driver. “In the last three days, I’ve driven four families at 6 in the morning to travel companies so they could leave for Syria. Those who can afford it leave.”

Civilian toll

Determining accurate civilian death tolls is virtually impossible in Iraq, where the government has no single source for reporting deaths related to the war. Whichever numbers one uses, however, it is clear that thousands of Iraqis continue to be slain or driven from their homes.

According to U.S. military figures, an average of 1,000 Iraqis have died each month since March in sectarian violence. That compares with about 1,200 a month at the start of the security plan, the military said in an e-mailed response to queries. This does not include deaths from car bombings, which the military said have numbered more than 2,600 this year.


Figures from Iraqi government ministries point to far higher casualty numbers and show that this year, an average of 1,724 civilians a month have died in sectarian attacks, bombings and other war-related violence.

In February, the civilian death toll was 1,646. Last month, it was 1,773, according to numbers from officials in the ministries of Defense, Interior and Health, who cite morgue, hospital and police reports. It was the second straight month that casualties have increased since the security plan began.

Dana Graber-Ladek of the International Organization for Migration said internal displacement had escalated since the troop buildup began. The increase is partly because of people fleeing military offensives, and partly because of better record-keeping by the Ministry for Displacement and Migration, Graber-Ladek said.

But 63% of those displaced this year said they had moved because of threats to their security, according to the International Organization for Migration. One-fourth said they were forced from their homes.

The organization also said that 69% of newly displaced Iraqis had left homes in Baghdad, a sign that sectarian cleansing continues in the capital. These people had either moved to new neighborhoods in the capital or had left Baghdad altogether.

“Basically, Iraqis are fleeing because they flee for their lives,” Graber-Ladek said. “As long as the violence continues, displacement will continue.”


Opposition in U.S.

Bush faces heightened opposition to the war even within his own party. That opposition probably will increase unless the report given to Congress offers a positive picture that remains elusive to most in Iraq.

But no matter how much of a letdown Iraqis say the troop buildup has been, many here say withdrawing U.S. forces would make things worse. In areas where they are present, at least, violence is at bay, most Iraqis said.

For the troops, the fear is that any gains will be lost if there is an abrupt pullout.

“As a professional soldier, you want to make sure that when you walk away, all the blood, sweat and tears you and your soldiers put in achieved something,” said Capt. Jonathan Fursman, a company commander with the 2nd Battalion, 3rd Infantry Regiment, in south Baghdad’s volatile Dora neighborhood, a Sunni area. “It may be the right time for the American people, but in no shape or form is it the right time for the Iraqi people.”


Times staff writers Julian E. Barnes in Washington and Alexandra Zavis in Baghdad and special correspondents in Baghdad contributed to this report.




‘There used to be marriages between Shiite and Sunnis, but now there is nothing like that, as if the two are from two different religions. After the security plan started, around 250 Shiite families returned, but these families left Madaen again when the army was not able to stop the sectarian violence against them. Madaen is now totally Sunni.’


Madaen, 15 miles southeast of Baghdad

‘Before the security plan was executed, the region of Suleikh and Qahira was inhabited by Shiites, mostly. But after the plan . . . problems started between the two sectors. Now, Suleikh is totally Sunnis and Qahira is Shiite. Before, the two regions . . . represented one neighborhood.’

Suleikh/Qahira (northeastern Baghdad)

‘Six months ago, we used to visit each other, and people living in Bayaa used to make friends or keep up friendship with others in Amil neighborhood. We used to stay late at night. There is one street separating us. Amil neighborhood is now 90% Shiite, whereas Bayaa is 90% Sunni.’

Bayaa (southwestern Baghdad)

‘Now, I think it is much better than before, basically because there is no killing. There are many American forces to segregate the Shiite and the Sunni divisions.’

‘Karada is probably one of the most stable areas in Baghdad, but even so, we are getting a fair share of devastating car bombs. Frankly speaking, I can’t tell absolutely whether the situation is getting better, even in Karada, for example. Is it calmer because the security forces are doing a good job? Or is it because many merchants and residents have left?’

Karada (central Baghdad)

‘I would say that the security situation has improved minutely. Before the security plan I used to be frightened, while now I am somewhat more comfortable going and coming to work.’


‘The problem is that the security forces are not terminating the militias and the terrorists once and for all. Each time they enter an area, the gangs flee only to resurface in other areas.’


Dora (south Baghdad)

‘Three months before the execution of the security plan, Baladiyat was kind of balanced with Shiites, Sunnis, Kurds and Christians. Two months after the execution of the plan, a change happened in the neighborhood. . . . Soon the region turned Shiite.’

Baladiyat (east Baghdad)

‘If the American forces leave Iraq, things will deteriorate. The security of Baghdad is in the hands of the American forces because no one from Al Qaeda or the Mahdi Army has such fatal firepower. If the Americans act in a correct way, security will be achieved.’

Hurriya (west Baghdad)